In 1956 I was just 16 when I completed my training and enlisted in the British Merchant Navy. I already suspected I was gay but had a rather romantic and unrealistic view of life. I had a steady girl friend and believed I should wait and see how things would turn out.
I joined an ageing passenger liner on the China run as a bell boy and entered a very strange but intriguing world where gays were accepted as part of life. Homosexuality might have been illegal in both the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine, but life on land in the middle of the twentieth century was far more restrictive than on the ships. I knew about the queer world on the high seas as my brother had sailed out before me and I used to meet him when he docked. “…but …don’t be fooled by the glitz and glamour of passenger liners..” he would also say.
The crew lived in cramped “peaks” often containing ten or more people. They were usually situated on the water line, which meant that portholes were closed most of the times. The peaks contained upper and lower metal bunks under which there was an iron drawer and an iron locker alongside. Nothing else, no other furniture, it was the equivalent of steerage.
The toilets or “heads” were basic as were the showers, which rarely had curtains. Every liner had gay crewmembers and some had more than others. I never found any hostility on board perhaps because there was “safety in numbers;” a lone gay man on a small ship might have had a tough time. Ships provided the only space where gays could be not only out, but outrageously camp. Efficient, able-bodied seamen by day, queens and butches strutted their stuff below deck at night, dressed up as their favorite Hollywood stars.
The homosexuals were known as “queens” and were almost always very effeminate. Each queen had a woman’s name, usually of their own choosing. The assumed name either went with the surname, Harry Malone would be “Molly,” John Garland was a sure bet for “Judy,” or many picked theirs out of admiration for a gay icon.
There were also names that reflected the personalities. “Fag Ash Lil” always had a cigarette hanging from his lip and Languid Lil was the most laid back person I ever met. Somehow I never managed to acquire a moniker, though “Polly” surfaced once or twice. Right from the start I felt absolutely at home at sea. I accepted everything as the norm. In the merchant navy you were either gay or straight. There was no in between. Bi-sexuality was unknown.
There were “married” couples made up of a queen and a man. The man would be considered straight since he probably had a wife and children at home. I don’t recall the “male” in this relationship ever being spoken of as a fagot. But the strangest element in this world was the rule that gays never had sex with each other. It was explained with the phrase: “Bread and bread never made a sandwich.” I didn’t really fit into any category. I was effeminate but not considered a “queen” and because I was a bit of a “bear” it was said of me: “He’s no fairy he’s too hairy.”
We were a formidable group. Almost a secret society as we tended to stick closely together against all odds. Well known for our wit and biting humour the straights were often reluctant to engage us since they invariably came off worse in a verbal encounter. We even had our own language called “palare” which had its roots in Italian, Romany and cockney slang. It was used as a cover to allow gay subjects to be discussed aloud without being understood; on the other hand, it was also used by some, particularly the most visibly camp and effeminate, as a further way of asserting their identity.
We could hold a basic conversation using mainly “palare.” “Vada the bona cartes on the butch omme” meant look at the great genitals on the butch man. “Swooping on the trinkets” stood in for oral sex and “opening the handbag” for farting. I remember on a train journey when a group of us shared a compartment with a particularly odious homophobe. We infuriated him by chatting in “palare.” He would have been even angrier had he known we were pouring scorn on the size of his dick. Some ships I served on were particularly queer. One was a freighter, which did a seemingly endless voyage to and from New Zealand; all but one of the catering crew was gay. We virtually ran the ship. “Diane” had a relationship with Andrew, a strikingly handsome deck hand from the Scottish Isles, who was devoted to him. “Tiny Tears” had sex with every one of the engineer officers and when the chief engineer kicked up a fuss about it someone attempted to attach his door knob to the main electric circuit. “Rose” was the funniest man on board. A hulking six-footer he and I used to assume a character and be those people for a day. One morning while we were scrubbing out the dining room, two old scullery maids and the captain came in and stood amazed listening to us as we chatted on. To say it was a strange ship is putting it mildly.
I was comfortably queer at sea at a time when life on land demanded compulsory straightness.
It was the experience of a lifetime. In those ten years I travelled the world, met wonderful people, and developed long lasting friendships. I quit following a serious illness and came to realize that shipping out was a form of avoiding reality and decided to become a land lubber and finally settle down.
John Parke lives in Bristol, England. He is currently recording the history of the city. He lives with his husband Trevor Haddrell, a renowned English painter.